Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Beware of a ‘self-coup’ before Venezuelan elections

As Venezuela gets closer to its Dec. 6 legislative elections with the opposition coalition leading by a comfortable margin in all major polls, there are growing fears that the government will take advantage of a climate of chaos — and perhaps even create it — in order to suspend the elections.

Hardly a day goes by without new statements or actions by President Nicolás Maduro — such as his closing of the border with Colombia this week — that fuel speculation that he may be seeking to create a climate of chaos to stage a “self-coup’’ and suspend the vote, well-placed Venezuelan opposition sources tell me.

Maduro has used government-controlled courts to jail leading opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López under fabricated charges, and to ban at least 10 others — including charismatic former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado — from running for Congress in the upcoming elections.

In addition, Maduro has said Venezuela will not allow international observers from the Organization of American States for the legislative elections. Instead, he says he will only invite representatives of the more sympathetic Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to visit the country as “electoral escorts,” a government invention that critics say amounts to “electoral tourism” by mostly pro-government foreign diplomats.

But with Venezuela’s inflation estimated at nearly 180 percent a year — the highest in the world — and the economy plummeting by more than 5 percent this year, these and other tricks may not be enough to win the election.

According to a recent poll by Datanalisis, 87.2 percent of Venezuelans say that the country’s situation is “bad” or “very bad,” and 70.4 percent of those polled disapprove of Maduro’s presidency. If the Dec. 6 elections were held today, the opposition coalition known as MUD would win by a margin of 23 percent, the Datanalisis poll shows.

“Until now, the government had resorted to all kinds of ruses to win elections,” says political scientist Maria Teresa Romero. “These tricks used to work when there was a difference of one or two percentage points, but they don’t suffice when the opposition is winning by nearly 25 percent.”

Romero told me that “there is such a generalized discontent, that the government has begun to charge the opposition with all kinds of violent crimes. There is a widespread belief that he wants to create a climate of chaos as an excuse to annul the elections.”

There have been dozens of cases of looting across the country in recent months, and street violence has reached all-time highs. Maduro’s response has been to step up his periodic claims of alleged foreign and domestic conspiracies, which are getting increasingly far-fetched.

Earlier this week, he presented a video on national television showing a Venezuelan prisoner facing murder charges claiming that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, actress Maria Conchita Alonso and top Venezuelan opposition leaders were paying him and others to help destabilize Venezuela.

The prisoner, Jose Rafael Perez Venta, who faces charges of murdering a woman and later cutting her body into pieces, claims in the government-taped video that Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen had personally sent him envelopes with $1,000 in cash through a third person. Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen have described the charges as outlandish.

“The accelerating deterioration of Venezuela’s political crisis is cause for growing concern,” says the International Crisis Group, a Washington, D.C., and Brussels-based think tank aimed at preventing conflicts worldwide. “If not tackled decisively and soon, it will become a humanitarian disaster.”

It adds that “this situation results from poor policy choices, incompetence and corruption,” and it can worsen substantially “unless the political deadlock is overcome and a fresh consensus forged, which in turn requires strong engagement of foreign governments and multilateral bodies.”

My opinion: I agree. The fact that Maduro is not taking any measures to prevent Venezuela’s worsening crisis — such as to stop scaring away investments and to promote a dialogue with the opposition — raises questions about whether he may be purposely or tacitly allowing the situation to deteriorate and creating border conflicts in order to have an excuse to cancel the Dec. 6 elections.

Venezuelan neighbors, especially Brazil and Colombia, are playing with fire by not actively pressing Maduro to hold free elections with credible OAS observers. An escalation of political violence could turn Venezuela into a lawless state from where Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers could destabilize neighboring countries, provoke massive emigration, and disrupt Venezuelan oil supplies to the Caribbean and the United States.

It’s time for Latin American countries to stop looking the other way and start pressing Maduro to hold credible elections that can help Venezuela get back on its feet, before it’s too late.